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Public pressure pushes big food companies

Public pressure pushes big food companies to improve their policies in developing countries

Campaign actions by hundreds of thousands of people in the past 12 months, including thousands of Kiwis, have swayed nine of the world’s ten biggest food and beverage companies to improve their social and environmental policies, says worldwide development organisation Oxfam.

Some leading companies made major strides in improving their policies on land and women’s rights, and carbon emissions. But overall the “Big 10” moved too slowly as a group, held back particularly by some laggard companies that are not showing enough interest or ambition, according to Oxfam’s first annual assessment of its “Behind the Brands” ranking system.

Oxfam launched “Behind the Brands” on February 26, 2013. It ranks the “Big 10” on the strength of their policies on transparency, women and other workers, farmers, land, water and climate.

In the past year, nine companies listened and improved their policies. General Mills alone did not and dropped to last place. General Mills sells Betty Crocker, Cheerios, Green Giant, Haagen-Dazs, Old El Paso and Yoplait among other brands. 

The top three performers – Nestle (1st), Unilever (2nd) and Coca-Cola (3rd) – all improved their scores by the biggest margins of 10, 14 and 13 percent respectively. Associated British Foods (9th) and Kellogg (8th) improved markedly by 8 and 6 percent respectively. The mid-ranked companies, Danone (6th tied), Mars (6th tied), Mondelez (4th tied) and PepsiCo (4th tied) also improved but only slightly and need to do much better. 

In 2013, “Behind the Brands” focused its public campaigning particularly on land and women’s rights. These issues were being largely ignored by the “Big 10”.

In March Oxfam campaigned for the chocolate giants Mars, Mondelez (owner of Cadburys) and Nestle to improve their policies to help end inequality for women farmers – which they did. In October we highlighted policies that Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and ABF needed to strengthen to stop land grabs in their supply chains. Coca-Cola in particular moved quickly to dramatically improve its policies. ABF have also committed to new policies that begin to address the issues and we are in dialogue with PepsiCo to secure similar promises to implement greater protection of land rights across its supply chains.

“Most of the ‘Big 10’ are moving in the right direction because hundreds of thousands of consumers and investors controlling trillions in assets are demanding an overhaul to business as usual,” said Oxfam International executive director Winnie Byanyima. “Some companies showed courageous leadership but it appears others need to be pulled along kicking and screaming. It will take time for them to reverse a 100-year history of relying on cheap land and labor to make mass products at huge profits but at high social and environmental costs. The race to the top is underway and there are clear leaders and laggards.”

Six of the “Big 10” instituted new policies that endorse the principle of Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) that help ensure communities are consulted and must give consent before the land they are using is sold. Seven companies have now signed up to the UN Women’s Empowerment Principles, a high-level commitment by a company to improve the conditions for women impacted by its business. The three biggest cocoa companies, Nestlé, Mondelez and Mars, will release a detailed action plan in May 2014 about how they will address gender inequities in their supply chains.  Eight companies improved their policies on climate mainly through better disclosure of their emissions and risks related to climate change. These policy changes are a necessary first step towards better practices and less hunger, poverty and environmental damage felt by communities in food and beverage company supply chains.

“By improving their policies on land, some of the world’s most powerful companies have already helped communities seeking fair compensation for the land that was taken from them nearly a decade ago in countries like Cambodia and Brazil,” said Byanyima. “Companies can open up space to help communities resolve decades-old conflicts once and for all.”

“The most important lesson from the first year of ‘Behind the Brands’ is that companies do respond, quickly and to great effect, when consumers push them toward more responsible methods of production. Down the supply chains we are already seeing agricultural producers and traders beginning to improve their practices to ensure they retain the business of the ‘Big 10’. We need more consumers to speak out in even greater numbers.”


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